“He’s breathing my air”

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‘An ode to siblings and their rivalry’

When I was a kid there was this show on TV called ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’. It was a pretty groundbreaking show at the time. But not so groundbreaking that my parents didn’t absolutely adore it. Their favorite part was when Tommy would say to his brother Dick “Mom always loved you best.”

I’m thinking they dug this because they both had plenty of siblings, and thus could relate. Of course, having plenty of siblings was the rule rather than the exception in those days. At least where my family was from, parents needed lots of little ones to help out on the farm with chores. And (gasp) there was always the risk that some of them wouldn’t (ahem) “make it”. So you had to have a few “spares”. You know, “just in case”. I can remember my Gramma P talking about her little un-siblings Pearl and Edward. Bless ’em, they “failed to thrive”.

Gramma (right) with one of her two sisters, Aunt Net. She also had a brother, Uncle Warren, who “made it”. Well, except for the arm he lost in a farming accident

So. Anyway. Irk. Enough of that. Dad was the fourth of eight. And Mom was the second of five. And these were not even considered exceptionally large broods.

My Mom, top right, captured not fighting with her bros and sis

And in my generation, I honestly can’t remember any families that didn’t have at least two kids, mostly more. I’m not sure whether that was just the way things were back then, family-wise, or if there were other forces at work. (My father’s side of the family and practically my whole hometown was, um, Catholic. So there was that.)

Regardless of the reason(s), we all had brothers and sisters, which meant we all shared some common experiences — experiences that Only Children might miss out on.

Most of these shared experiences involved actual sharing. We kids shared almost everything. Big things, like bedrooms. I like to say that it was only when I got divorced when I finally got my own room. (I was — gasp –married, though briefly, Before The Dude, which you can read about in ‘My Polio-Shot Marriage’, if you’re interested.) When I was little, I shared with my brother Scott. (I stretched a string down the middle of the room to mark “my” side.) Then it was my Only Sister Laura. In college, of course, I had a roommate. And after that, I got married.

Sharing a soak with Aunt Susie and Cousin Jimmy-with-all-the-toys, who was the only Only Child I knew for many years

We shared smaller things too. Like toys (except for my Cousin Jimmy, who was an only child and an object of toy envy for me and my sibs), and books, even baths. And food. Meat came mostly in “family packs” of eight. Which meant that there was one extra pork chop when our family of seven sat down to dinner. We’d speed-eat our chops (you couldn’t take “seconds” till you were through with your “firsts”), only to have my Dad pull rank and fork the last one onto his plate. And when my mom made a pie, she had to practically use calipers to make sure our pieces were “even”.

A subset of sharing was “taking turns”. We took turns being swung on the swing, being pulled (or pulling) the wagon. Sitting on Mom’s lap. Sitting next to Aunt Marilyn at Christmas.

One of the most coveted “taking turns” experiences was Sitting in The Front Seat of The Car. See, in those days before not only car seats, but seat belts, parents would sort of cram their kids in the car every which way. In our case, with five kids, that meant four in the back, and one very lucky sibling in the front seat between Mom and Dad.

“Get in the back seat if you want to wiggle your behind”. At Gramma’s house, arrayed around the Ford. I must have been in the car, sulking

It was really sweaty and sticky and icky being one of the four in the back. (No AC in cars then, either.) We would stake out and jealously guard our little sections of bench-seat territory. I pity my poor parents, having to listen to “His leg is touching my leg” and “He’s looking out my window” and (my favorite and the title of this piece) “He’s breathing my air!” And to think that every single one of our family vacations was taken by car. It’s a wonder that they didn’t just leave us all by the side of the road. (Which The Dude and I actually did with The Child once. A story I have yet to write.)

Only Sister Laura and I sharing a bench (actually, I think it’s a cooler) on a family vaca involving not only a car, but a Nimrod camper towed behind it

Another subset of sharing was “hand-me-downs”. This was when you inherited an article of clothing from an older, larger, sibling who had “grown out of” it. My brothers once famously owned muscle shirts which stick in my memory not only because of their unique style (striped as well as sleeveless and “muscle-y”) but because they wore them at the same time. Yes, someone gave them each a muscle shirt instead of gifting just one that then would get handed down. (Yes, I do have a story about these; called “Howie and the Muscle Shirt”. Check it out.)

Even though I was the oldest, I still didn’t escape hand-me-downs. Some were from older cousins. This gown, oddly enough, was handed down by a friend of my mom who had a rather glam daughter

At the time we would whine and complain about all this turn-taking and handing down, but I honestly think we learned a lot about getting along — and had a pretty good time while we were at it.

These days, even as a Grownup Responsible for her own Child (who is, like most of her peers, an Only, bless her), I’m still sharing with my siblings. Only now, instead of sweaty sticky car seats, it’s memories.

Amagansett, New York. August 2018

 

A look back: The Guy before The Dude

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‘My short first marriage, in short. Sort of.’

I’ve written about my first marriage before. Specifically, about how I (finally) revealed to The Child the fact that I’d had a Husband Before Daddy. It’s a pretty funny story. Now. Though it was pretty traumatic for the poor Child at the time.

It’s weird to think that your mom had a life before you existed–that she locked her brother in the pantry and tricked her father into letting her go to the drive-in and smoked in the car (just one time, but still) to provoke her mother–much less that she was actually legally wed to Another Person Not Your Parent.

Me, after having been wed to a Person Other Than The Child’s Parent. In my extremely hot, extremely (in retrospect) inappropriate-for-August-in-Southern-Illinois gown

And even though my first marriage lasted only a very short time–I’ve had cars longer than I had that husband–it was still a Real Marriage. There was a Real Wedding, complete with rehearsal (see the top of this post for a photo of us practicing our vows with Pastor Kahre), in my hometown church. With six friends and relations as bridesmaids in homemade-but-pretty dresses, and a reception with a tiered cake and boozeless-but-punchy punch. So I think this marriage deserves, at the very least, its own blog piece.

Me, as a Real Bride. Gulping that punch (it was HOT). Don’t think I had even a bite of that cake, though

First, a bit about The Guy. I did tell you, in “My Polio-Shot Marriage”, that he was a fraternity guy (as opposed to my Other Serious College BF, who was a tie-dyed in the wool hippie). His was the frat (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) whose members had a penchant for dressing in Confederate Uniforms on occasion–occasions more formal than those requiring nylons and wrist corsages, which were football games.

I met The Guy when I was on a blind date (yes, blind dates “work”; in fact, that’s how I met The Dude)–but the blind date in question was with a totally different person whom I left in the lurch when I spotted The Guy across a room crowded with Boone’s-Farm-swilling collegiates.

The Guy caught my attention with his good looks and charm, but he also had a great story. He came from a town even smaller than mine deep in the Missouri Ozarks. His Dad, whom I never met, was a long-haul trucker who ran off with a truckstop waitress. His Stepdad (I never met him, either) was a merchant seaman based out of Galveston. His Mom wore muumuus and those fold-up slippers with jewels on them and ran a beauty parlor out of the back bedroom in their house, which stood on cement blocks and had a couch on the porch.

(I have a vivid recollection from our first Thanksgiving: eating turkey dinner off TV trays while watching Dolly Parton on the Porter Wagoner Show in his Mom’s living room, where his Gramma was ensconced on a cot. None of this fazed me, except for the fact that they put cornbread in their stuffing.)

We even had real cans tied to the back of our getaway Vega

Not only did The Guy’s life sound like a country western song, he could actually sing country western songs. He played the guitar and had a really nice voice. We would sing “Me and Bobby McGee” and Linda Ronstadt songs together (my voice is simply awful; he must have loved me) as well as such gems as “Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone” and “Hello Country Bumpkin, fresh as frost out on the pumpkin.” Which is, scout’s honor, a real song.

The Guy and Me, blissfully wed. Yes, those were the days of more facial hair and fewer foundation garments

This was a guy who not only made it to college — the first in his family to do so — but was the president of his fraternity and, when I met him, wrapping up his last year of law school. He was also great with kids. (He took my little sister and even littler brother on boat rides.) And nice to animals. (We took in a particularly problematic treated-the-shag-carpet-like-a-litter-box stray cat in our first year of wedlock.) And did I mention he had a great sense of humor? (The Guy is my source for gems like “He was so dumb, his brain rattles around in his head like a bee bee in a boxcar”) He could even cook. He made a mean chicken casserole with canned mushroom soup.

Great story. Great guy. So what happened? Trust me, this is the very question my parents asked when I called them to deliver the news that we were breaking up. (Mine was the first divorce on either side of my family. This was devastating news.)

To this day, I don’t have a real answer. I don’t think it helped matters that the ink wasn’t even dry on our marriage license when The Guy had to report for military duty in Indianapolis. (He went to college on an ROTC scholarship, so he “owed” the Army.)

The Guy and I, about six months’ married, attending somebody else’s wedding — my Aunt Marilyn’s, in fact. (Domestic skills note: I made that dress)

So for months, I was a married college senior, living in a dorm. (“Heck, we’d paid for that dorm contract!” my parents and The Guy agreed.) So that was weird. And then, when The Guy came back, we had completely different schedules and hardly saw one another. I was up late–and out, at the library–studying, while he was up early to go to work. And even though our apartment was rather Barefoot-in-the-Park adorable, the Murphy bed completely blocked the door, making it impossible to go our separate ways without waking–and annoying–each other.

So. Anyway. Speaking of going our separate ways, that’s ultimately what we did, even though I can’t really explain why. I honestly have no idea what path The Guy took (we had no kids, and no real reason to stay in touch, so we didn’t). But, as you know, I ended up moving to New York and meeting The Dude and having The Child. Who knows where I’d be if I’d stayed married that first time? I could go on and on about Fate, and about Paths Not Taken. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll show you this picture taken in my going-away dress. And then I’ll go away. Until next week, that is.

Me, with my Mom, Grampa Henry, and Uncle Mark, looking impossibly young and hopeful, getting ready to ride off into the sunset in that Vega

Amagansett, New York. August 2018

Some like it hot

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‘A lifetime of summers spent sweetly sweltering’

The Dude and I were sharing an outdoor dinner with some Fabulous Friends (thank you again, A and T!) when our hostess pointed out a passel of birds doing a parabolic dance in the sky.

“Oh, those are swallows,” Dude Man informed us. “They do that swarming thing to get ready to migrate. It’s a Sign of Fall.”

“Oh noooooo!” A and I immediately groaned. “Not Fall. We’re so not ready for Fall!

Hot Family Reunion. My Favorite Sister and I keeping cool out on a porch

See, I have friends who pine for autumn leaves and who count the days until Christmas. Friends who Hate Being Hot. But A and I fall (pun intended) into that group of People Who Believe Summer Can Never Be Long Enough.

Hot Recreation. That’s Teenage Me (and is that my Mom??) enjoying the heated pleasures of Jantzen’s Resort

Because I adore it, I’ve written several odes to summer. You can catch up with summer reunions in “Looks like we got ourselves a Hoo-Hah!”, summer foods in “Great Aunts and Glorified Rice” and “To Hell with Kale”, summer jobs in “Those Were Banner Days Indeed” and “They Didn’t Do This for Fun, You Know”. And if just plain good ole summer nostalgia is your thing, check out “The Days are Long, but the Season is Short” and “Remembrance of Watermelon Past”. Or just keep on reading.

Hot Pose. This family portrait, complete with gleaming sweaty heads, was taken in a sweltering trailer by an itinerant photographer

I grew up in Southern Illinois, which means that I was fully prepped for Summer and its attendant heat. Because, no we didn’t have AC. And yes, it was super-hot. So hot I can remember almost burning my hand on the refrigerator handle. And hotly and restlessly tossing on top of the covers to the sound of the box fan that was set into the window of the upstairs landing. It ran “backwards” — with the blades facing out — so that, in theory anyway, it sucked hot air out of the extremely suffocating upstairs bedrooms so that the (relatively) cooler outside air would breeze on in.

Cats on a Hot Boat Roof. “Cooling off” on the Sir Launch-A-Lot (yes, that was my Dad’s pontoon boat’s real name) on Carlyle Lake

My parents, when they remodeled their house sometime in the Eighties, added a porch where they could sleep outside in the summer. They did this even though they had, by then, installed air conditioning that worked (sort of) on the main floor. They really didn’t like using it very much. I can remember visiting and Mom saying, “You can turn on the air conditioning — if you want.

Hot Birthday. My Dad accepting tributes on his Day — and on his sleeping couch. It was only June and already too-short-shorts sweltering

But most of the time, instead of retreating to the confines of the air-conditioned living room, we stayed cool (or somewhat so) by staying outside. This was the way Life was Lived in Summertime in Southern Illinois. People went outside. As kids, we’d run around outside throwing persimmons at each other until Mom called us in for supper. Then, after supper, we’d run around outside catching lightning bugs.

Even as adults, my siblings and I would sit outside in lawn chairs eating takeout church chicken and clutching beers kept cold in foam holders emblazoned with Dad’s engineering-company logo. (Only in Southern Illinois would beer-holder branding be a such a wise marketing choice.)

Hot Bros. The Dude and Youngest Brother Doug enjoy a couple of cold ones on board the Sir Launch-A-Lot. Note HMG beer holders in addition to sweaty bare chests

Speaking of which, some Southern Illinoisans would place lawn chairs in the back of their pickup trucks, along with a cooler of beer, load it up with their friends and then drive around town.

Hot truck. My Dad had one, but I don’t recall any lawn chairs in the back. At least not when I was visiting

Sometimes, when we were outside, we jumped into water. When I was a kid, it was the municipal pool. (Oh those days of biking home, damp and smelling of chlorine, chomping on a frozen Milky Way.) When I was older, it was Carlyle Lake, where my Dad kept his pontoon boat, the Sir Launch-A-Lot. (Honest. There was a nameplate.)

So, by the time I grew up and moved East, I was ready for whatever Summer could throw at me. To escape the City and its fry-an-egg-on-it sidewalks and suffocate-down-there subways, we come on out here to Amagansett. Where we still cope with the heat the old-fashioned way. By going outside.

Hot on Deck. The Dude and The Child chilling at the Little House

Which is where I’m going right now. See you — sweaty but happy — next week.

Amagansett, New York. August 2018

How many people can you pack into a gazebo?

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‘No one knows — because no one has ever tried.’

Some time ago (in a piece called ‘What’s Not To Lichen?’) I wrote about stuff that families find funny. (Usually, but not always, it’s only the people actually in that family who find these things funny.) Sometimes, like in the Henry Clan, it’s bad puns. My Grampa Henry had a whole collection of particularly-awful puns. Plus dirty limericks. He wrote one once about his gall-bladder operation. He survived; fortunately, the limerick did not.

Me. Doing stand-up in a bed of you-know-what. Check out ‘What’s Not To Lichen?’ for more punishment (er, examples)

Besides awful puns (and sometimes limericks) there’s usually a set of inside jokes — groaners that never fail to amuse, at least when told (and retold) within the confines of the family itself. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “How many dead people are in that graveyard?” (Answer: “All of them.”) I know, I know. If you can stand it, a good selection of both Henry and Whitmore specialties can be found in ‘Kangaroo Walks Into A Bar’. Just don’t take a sip of coffee before you read it; there’s a Whitmore urology joke that’s killer.

Sometimes this funny family stuff can’t be categorized as a pun or a joke or even a limerick. Sometimes what’s funny just is.

Take gazebos. For some reason, if you’re a Henry, the mere sight of a gazebo is sure to crack you up. (If you’re not sure what a gazebo is, you can click here or just look at the photo at the top of this post.) If a Henry sees a gazebo, and points it out to a fellow Henry, both burst out laughing. If there’s a non-Henry along, he/she can look a bit baffled. Continue reading

Those were Banner days indeed

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‘An ode to my first job that did not involve cleaning up. At least not cleaning up after other people’s children’

Again, apologies for being a slacker. I seem to be getting later and later with my Tuesday posts. And I don’t even have the turkey to blame this week.

‘Curses, foiled again!’ said Mr. Turkey upon spying this clever foil

Hey, at least we didn’t use a slingshot, an idea suggested by a relative at that Fab Family Reunion I recently attended.

But I wasn’t always a slacker. I was a hard worker, even at a very early age. For one thing, my parents were firm believers in Kids Doing Chores. (I remember we got docked a nickel each day we didn’t make our beds; since our weekly allowance was only 25 cents, there were weeks when my brothers owed my Mom). I won’t go into a whole long list of these chores, but suffice it to say that I got my fill of ironing. And my brothers don’t often volunteer to clean out basements or dog pens. Continue reading

Stars in stripes

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‘Looking back and forth on the Fourth’

For the past several summers we’ve had this fun Fourth of July tradition where we let The Child fill up our house with as many of her friends as we have beds to lay their pretty little heads on. Sometimes it’s guys and girls; sometimes ‘just’ girls. The Dude and I are happy with either arrangement, though we have noticed that when it’s girls-only, the Young Friends seem more inclined to activity — like going to the beach, hopping on the bikes, or heading into town to catch what’s up at The Talkhouse.  

Last year’s crop of Nation’s Birthday Beauties. Haven’t wrestled this year’s photo out of The Dude’s camera yet. But, trust me, they’re equally sparkly

(The guys, when the guest list includes them, seem content to hang around The Compound, sipping beer and, well, being content. Sometimes they bestir themselves to demonstrate their CrossFit routines; there was a Matt-shaped indentation in our lawn for a few post-Fourth days one year. Oh, and one other memorable Fourth, Somebody’s BF soaked his iPhone in our hot tub, though not intentionally. BTW, putting a soaked iPhone into a jar of rice does not dry it out, no matter what you may have read on the internet.)

Speaking of food, this year I inaugurated a new tradition: The USA Birthday Cake. From Carvel, of course. No, we didn’t sing

But hey, anything anybody wants to do — or not do — is A-okay with me. I’m happy to provide food — beaucoup de food — and stay the heck out of the way. I was in the kitchen in the midst of doing just that when one of this year’s Young Lovelies (and they are — lovely — each and every one of them) strolled by on her way to the pool, and I happened to catch the unmistakable whiff of — Coppertone.

Continue reading

The Process of Elimination

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‘What to do when the blog clock is ticking’

People sometimes ask if I have trouble thinking of things to write about. Nope, I have the opposite problem — too many random ideas doing battle in my brain. Usually I look through photos to help me decide. But today that only made things worse. I kept finding photos I’d wished I’d used in previous posts. Like, here’s one that would have been perfect for last week, when I wrote about good times in and on the Lake of My Youth:

Look! I found a photo of the front of Sir Launch-A-Lot, complete with sign. That’s Gramma Henry, flanked by Only Sister Laura and Only Mom, um, Mom

Oh, and here’s one that would have been dandy to include in my riff on weddings (“I do, I do. I really do like weddings”)

Looking “back” on my first, “Polio-Shot” wedding. This was the rehearsal. But I guess you could say that about the whole marriage: that it was a “rehearsal”

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“Yet’s go to Ye Yake”

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‘Gosh. Illinois’ largest lake has been around for 50 years’

Now before you Whippersnappers out there start in with “Hey, isn’t Lake Michigan Illinois’ largest lake?” Or even “What’s so all-fired old about 50 years? There are lakes (see afore-mentioned Lake Michigan) that have been around for, like, a zillion years,” let me point out that Carlyle Lake (or if you’re feeling fancy “Lake Carlyle”) is the largest lake within the borders of Illinois, and that it’s a man-made lake that’s been around since 1967. So there.

This picture from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows the Carlyle Lake dam and spillway in all its glory. Nice stats, too, if that floats your boat

Carlyle Lake is also the only lake named after my personal home town, Carlyle, Illinois. But I’m not going to get into Fun Lake Facts. My mission here is to entertain. And so, actually, was (and is) the Lake’s. Oh, there was some serious flood-control going on. But for my family and friends, The Lake was really all about fun and games. Continue reading

“Swim, Sandy, swim!”

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‘Equal time for dogs’

My Porn Star Name is ‘Sandy Peterson’. In honor of Sandy the Dog, the beloved Pet of My Youth, pictured above in a moment of not-unusual adorableness.

But before we get to Sandy, a quick word about that word game. Maybe you played it too. It’s the one where you take the name of your beloved pet, add your mother’s maiden name, and, voila!, you’ve got your Porn Star Name. (The Child’s is ‘Tuna Henry’.)

I must admit ours are pretty tame. Over wine at my dining room table I’ve heard some easy-to-imagine-clad-in-fishnets doozies: ‘Pinky Parker’, ‘Missy Goodbody’. Though the Dude’s is ‘Duffy Miltner Flockmaster Cromartie’, which is pretty darned racy.

But back to pets, which is the point of this piece. A couple of weeks ago I waxed nostalgic about felines of yore in ‘The Cat Who Ran Away from Home and Broke My Heart’.

I finally found a picture of me with Aunt Marilyn’s Herkimer, the first cat I adored. And tortured with two-year-old abandon

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That’ll teach you

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‘My high school field trip to the state penitentiary’

So I was having my hair cut last week and telling Anthony about last week’s post — the one about driving and road trips — and had gotten to the part about how in my high school the Drivers’ Ed teacher was always the same guy who taught gym and something called ‘social studies’.

Drivers’ Ed/Gym/Social Studies teacher Mr. K

We got to talking about how different high school was way back when, even in Brooklyn, where he grew up. How we had classes like Industrial Arts (AKA ‘Shop’) and Home Economics (‘Home Ec’) and organizations like FFA, which stood for Future Farmers of America.

I don’t know whatall went on in Shop (except that it looks a tad oily) since Shop was strictly for boys. In fact, boys were required to take either Shop or Agriculture. Girls had no choice, but were similarly required to take the aforementioned Home Economics. I don’t know where the ‘economics’ came in, since basically we were taught cooking, sewing, setting the table — all skills designed to make us better wives and mothers. Interesting note: Home Ec was taught by a Miss Ford, who was neither. Continue reading